My boyfriend and I recently took a trip to Jamaica (April 11-April 16) and for the most part it was absolutely wonderful, but there are some things that I have learned and want to share beyond my normal travel tips and reviews, but let us begin with the positive. We booked our airport to hotel (and vice versa) transfer via Rocky’s Tours and actually met Rocky himself! He was very pleasant and talked with us on the beautiful coastal drive from Montego Bay to Negril (where we were staying). We will definitely be booking with Rocky’s again on our next trip to Jamaica. On to our hotel, the Tensing Pen…
Oh, the Tensing Pen…
This hotel, I have to say, made this my most favorite vacation I have ever been on (even though I still maintain that the south island of New Zealand is my favorite place on the planet). Let me explain. I love swimming and snorkeling, but am not very found of sand. This hotel is right on some cliffs so there is no sand to contend with! There are a good number of ladders to descend into the water and some fresh water showers right there near the ladders, so you can wet your hair before going in (which I find helps combat effects of salt water) and rinse off when you come out. It is the perfect set up.
(me on our balcony)
Seagrape II from the lounge area near the sea.
And the hotel is not your typical huge apartment style-looking hotel. The rooms are set up in villa-like styles and we stayed in the Seagrape II which is on the edge of the property so it afforded even more privacy, as I don’t think anyone was staying beneath us. We had air-conditioning and a balcony… it was just so perfect. There was no tv, which I actually enjoyed! The only minor complaint I had was that our shower wasn’t always consistently running warm water, but, obviously that will not deter me from going back. There was just one night when a neighboring resort had music so loud that it was hard to sleep, but that is hardly the Tensing Pen’s fault.
And ladies if you need a hair dryer, just ask the staff, but I think you’ll find that attempts to dry and straighten your hair will be futile lol. And that’s ok. Hair and clothes dry off fast. I found myself just now perusing some of the negative reviews of Tensing Pen on trip advisor and one comments on bugs… maybe it was the time of year we went, but there were absolutely no bug problems in our room at all! It was so beautiful outside that we slept on the balcony a bit and often had the doors open! Which could have invited some small lizards or bugs, but we had absolutely no issue. Maybe different times of year the bugs are different? Anyway, just wanted to address that. Do be aware that some units do not have AC, but I think it says so on the website. I honestly think we would have been ok without it at this time of year. You will likely also encounter two lovely pooches named Sugar and Beezy while lounging or dining at Tensing Pen. They are delightful and well-behaved and really add to the homey and welcoming atmosphere.
I will say that I was also attracted to Tensing Pen because I would say it’s more of an adult playground, not that young children aren’t welcome, but I would say the ladders and swimming in the sea might be a bit much/dangerous for them. So I was happy to find that there were really no children there, no screaming, it was so incredibly peaceful. Exactly what I needed. Additionally, we wanted to be able to snorkel right from the hotel and this, apparently, is hard to find! So please, anyone reading this, if you know of a place where you can snorkel right from the hotel and it isn’t 10,000 US dollars a night, please let me know! Share the wealth of knowledge, like I am, as Tensing Pen is such a gem. The snorkeling was lovely, and when the sun was out (which was often this time of year, almost to the rainy season though!), you could see so many beautiful colors of the plants and fish.
One thing I will say about Jamaica, is that we experienced seeing a lot of jelly-fish looking creatures, but didn’t really feel their effects? We were told to only beware of flat looking ones and I can’t say that I saw any! I’m fairly certain I must have touched a few of these creatures accidentally, and at worst I felt a little irritation on my skin. Anyone have anymore information on jellies in Jamaica? They certainly didn’t ruin our stay! But initially I was scared when I saw them in the water, maybe I’m immune? Not sure. haha.
As an aside, I especially love traveling because you never know who you may meet. We met author Mark Sullivan and his wife! Being an aspiring creative writer/novelist… it was just awesome, and they recommended Ivan’s next door for dinner at the Catcha Falling Star hotel, which was superb. We had awesome jerk shrimp and banana flambe for dessert under a clear sky full of stars. Just lovely. And, as a testament to how awesome Tensing Pen is, everyone we talked to there said it was not their first time and they have been coming back for years! Sigh. I just love traveling, you never know you may run into, and for me, I took it as even more of a sign that writing is what I am supposed to do, and not just academic writing, but creative as well. So. Cool.
The food at the Tensing Pen was wonderful, everything we had was lovely. I especially enjoyed the seafood pasta, and for breakfast I liked their smoked salmon with cream cheese. There is a light continental breakfast included (fruit, toast, cereal, yogurt, tea, coffee), but any dishes beyond that are very reasonably priced. I think the most expensive thing was 12 US dollars for breakfast and was actually the salmon I had. Dinner is reasonably priced too and very tasty. You can also stock your fridge with sodas for just a few bucks! I did also try their Red Stripe beer, and even though I’m not a beer drinker, I did enjoy it.
Some other cool dining spots we hit outside the hotel was the Sweet Spot after an outside snorkeling tour which I will detail below as well as Cool Vybes right outside the Tensing Pen. Both were wonderful places to try some authentic Jamaican cuisine, and it’s neat to see how places make their jerk sauce differently– as Jamaica is known for their jerk chicken, among other things. I was especially taken aback by how their curried chicken was not at all like the Indian type curry that I find too spicy and painful to eat. I really liked how they did their curry in Jamaica. Though, I am a wimp when it comes to spicy food, I didn’t find the curried chicken over-powering. Very good. One thing I will say, though, is that they cook their meat on the bone to retain flavor, which it does! However, be aware that you are likely to pull bones out of your mouth and that is just the experience. So don’t chomp down too hard! And the mango in Jamaica is absolutely to die for. Sometimes, at least where I’m situated in Pennsylvania, the mango spears you buy just are so fiberous and not ripe, it tastes like… you’re gnawing on bamboo! Not so in Jamaica, they were so flavorful and juicy! Yum!
We booked a snorkeling excursion to Booby Cay through Juju Tours and were extremely happy with everything. Our driver and guide, Richie, went snorkeling with us and pointed out a cave that we could swim through! The snorkeling was wonderful and we actually saw some unexpected critters. Sometimes turtles and rays are around too, Richie said. We definitely recommend Juju Tours and would love to book more excursions with Richie in particular when we return.
Oh boy, now on to Holiday Services. I consider myself a savvy traveler, and my boyfriend and I did extensive research online with reviewing testimonials, different companies, etc before booking. I will say, that we booked two excursions with this company (through trip advisor, they were highly rated!) and the first was fine, and enjoyable, but… the second experience… well, let’s just say we will never use them again and I would encourage you to steer clear as well. Read on.
The first experience, in which we had fun, we were headed to Mayfield Falls and picked up by a really nice and knowledgeable woman who picked up her nephew as well, which we were fine with. She shared with us more about hopefully starting a biking tour within a year or so and explained more about the culture of Jamaica and how some people still, understandably, don’t like “white people” because of the history of the island (colonialism). I’m really glad she brought this up and talked with us about it and mentioned how some of the locals who make crafts for sale are continuing to be “sensitized” regarding how tourists, and white people, are not coming as threats anymore, but as friends, and to not be too pushy with their selling tactics. I really appreciated this insight and conversation and it helped me to further kind of, conceptualize their culture.
Our guide at the falls was Sean and he was incredibly friendly, took pictures for us, and showed us various plants and fruits along the way, like bread fruit! You walk up the falls, which is crystal clear. Wearing water shoes, I think, is a must, even though most of the rocks are smoothed over because of the waterfalls, it helps with grip. I would also recommend bringing towels, even though we pretty much dried on the walk back to the car. Mayfield falls are definitely worth a morning/afternoon of your stay in Jamaica.
Now on to the nightmare… ok, the Luminous Lagoon itself was lovely, but that was separate from the Holiday Services transport we utilized to get there. I will say, though, that if you are staying in Negril like we were, maybe driving the 1.5 hours there and 1.5 hours back maybe isn’t worth it, but that’s just my opinion. Definitely check it out if you can and if you are staying close to it (pretty close to Montego Bay), then it’s worth it for sure. What is disappointing though is that it’s impossible to photograph without advanced camera equipment, but still a neat experience! Now… onto the transport fiasco.
The guy was 10 minutes late, which isn’t a huge deal, but it’s just one other thing on a huge laundry list of errors and mishaps that made this experience quite terrifying for my boyfriend and I. I have never been this afraid for my safety in any of my travels. Anyway, it was uncomfortable from the start as he started literally harassing us, asking why we didn’t book other things with Holiday Services, saying that snorkeling is a waste of our time in Jamaica. Um, excuse me? Do you get to tell me what I find enjoyable on vacation? Anyway, so the car ride there set the uncomfortable tone, but I never would have imagined what was to come. Again, the lagoon was fine, but the drive back was what was terrifying.
So, the driver tells us he is going to play Bob Marley, proceeds to start speeding and screaming the lyrics like a maniac (like he was high) and then tells us he needs to stop somewhere to pick up papers. I guess it was the headquarters for holiday services, but it was on a back road, off of the main road, barbed wire all around, not well lit, a really scary looking place. So he leaves us in the car, makes phone calls, grabs papers, then stops AGAIN halfway in the parking lot and halfway in an alley to talk to someone. My boyfriend and I were just looking at each other in disbelief like, what can we do? We didn’t know who to call, contemplated having him just drop us off at another hotel closeby so we could hopefully get different transportation because we were so uncomfortable. We didn’t know what to do. So he did drive us back to Tensing Pen and I honestly don’t know how we didn’t crash. He was going so fast, passing unsafely, behaving erratically … and believe me, driving in Jamaica can be an experience as they drive on the left side of the road and overtaking and beeping is custom and the norm, but what he was doing compared to Rocky’s Tours? completely unacceptable. I was literally in fear for my life. So I sent feedback to the company, didn’t hear via email, and then when I posted my review on Facebook, they were less than understanding. You can check that out here.
And just in case the link doesn’t work, I copied and pasted the interaction here.
My boyfriend and I recently used your transportation service on April 15th, 2017 to the Luminous Lagoon, and to say that we were severely disappointed would be an understatement.
We were picked up around 5:10 pm from the Tensing Pen by someone who called himself “cowboy.” I could have overlooked that he was late, but he started to berate us for not booking other tours with your company and asked us unanswerable questions like “why do you not want to know more about Jamaica?” Believe me, I am a world traveler, and I know there are cultural differences in communication, but this was well beyond cultural differences. He was beyond forward and we were uncomfortable on the way there, and terrified on the way back. He took us to the WRONG place first for our excursion– the actual lagoon was fine, but then after the excursion he took us to what I assume, was your headquarters? To pick up some paperwork. There was barbed wire all around and parked tour buses with no one in sight. He left us in the car in the middle of nowhere with Bob Marley blasting while he made phone calls, talked to some random person who showed up in the parking lot, and it looked as though we were on the back roads in some alleyway. Believe me, if I had thought we had another option, I would have called someone else for a ride back, but we didn’t feel comfortable just being left there and were unsure what to do.
It gets worse. We felt terrified on the way back. He was blasting music, screaming lyrics to songs like a lunatic, speeding, passing unsafely, and going 110 km/hr in a 60 or 80 zone. I realize driving is different in Jamaica and over-taking cars is the norm, but this was NOT normal. He might have been high as his behavior was erratic. I have never. EVER. felt so unsafe during any of my travels. I will never use your service again, I will tell all of my traveling friends to never use your service, and I strongly recommend you fire this person and utilize a better screening process for your employees. Rockys, for example, does an excellent job. You may want to contact them.
You failed to note that you booked a group tour. We do have a 6 person minimum and instead of cancelling your tour, we upgraded you to a PRIVATE tour at no additional charge.
This was actually Cowboy’s 2nd day on the job and funny enough we received a call from other people who interacted with him at the lagoon commending on how pleasant he was and they were not even on our tour.
He was 10 minutes late for the tour and our office was aware of this, he went to the wrong location and realized at 4:55 that he was at the wrong place and then he headed to your hotel and picked you up. It was only 10 minutes.
In an attempt to be friendly he tried to engage you in conversation. As a ‘world traveler’ you should have been able to pick up on that. It was an attempt to engage you in conversation (why talk about the Black River if you had already been there). If you did not want to engage in conversation you could have just said so.
As I mentioned before this was his second day on the job. He made a mistake and went to the more ‘common’ location which was 2 minutes away from the location we use. He did apologize to you and as you said you enjoyed the tour.
At the end of the tour, he did stop at our main office, under my directions, which is on a service road beside the main road. The barbed wire’s you saw beside our property is actually a security company and the person he was on the phone with was me and I was inside the office at the time. So it was not a ‘random’ person it was me the owner of the company and I was also in uniform. If the music was ‘blasting’ then why not ask him to turn the music down.
In regards to his speed, we have vehicle tracking in all of our vehicles and according to our tracking report his fastest speed was 90kmph or 56mph. I am happy to send you this report.
We do not see any reason where a 1 star review was warranted. You did not contact our company (until after you wrote this review). I would have happily issued a partial refund and explanation to your concerns. You also decided to ‘recommend’ an individual driver on our company page.
We apologize you did not enjoy your experience and it is unfortunate that you did not give us the opportunity to make it better before trashing our company on the internet.
You weren’t there to be part of the conversation in the car, so I don’t understand how you can tell me what I “should” have done.And I think you should be appreciative of how scary it can be to feel unsafe in a country that you don’t know well and be taken to some backroad location in pitch black off of main roads and be left there. He stopped at the main building and stopped again to talk to someone in the parking lot. It was remote. Not well lit. It was very unprofessional with little explanation and I think you should be more compassionate to the people who book tours with you and are SCARED because of your employees actions.
Please, please, though, don’t let that one experience we had deter you from coming to Jamaica, do your research, have back up plans, and enjoy this wonderful island. Just be aware that the culture may be vastly different from what you’re used to, and vastly different from more touristy spots. People may be smoking weed randomly, you will see really nice homes next to not so nice homes, some huge looking hotels that flopped and are now in disaray. Just be aware. Overall, though, we had an awesome time.
Some last quick practical tips:
- You don’t have to tip, but it’s appreciated, and when you get bills at restaurants, there is often a tip included that you can see.
- When eating chicken, goat, or fish, be aware you may find bones! It does add flavor, but could be a bit dangerous if you’re not expecting it.
- They take US dollars everywhere we went, so I think that is pretty common place so we didn’t bother with exchanging any currency.
- Don’t be naive like I was, have a plan B when traveling somewhere. Have a number of the US Embassy in Jamaica or have an alternative taxi service or the number to the manager or headquarters of the company to try to prevent the situation that happened to my boyfriend and I.
- Sunscreen … reapply it, and often. I got burnt, but it wasn’t awful.
- Never a bad idea to take towels on excursions, just in case they aren’t supplied.
- Invest in water shoes, they may even save you from getting poked by sea urchins.
Travel on, my friends! And please let me know of any other spots you like where you can snorkel right from the hotel!